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A mutant rabbit on the moon Image: Bird Bath Games/Raw Fury

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Finally, a bullet-hell Stardew Valley

Plus, marriage!

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

I’ve never understood the appeal of bullet-hell games.

Bullet-hell is a genre in which the screen is often flooded with bullets, often arranged in geometric patterns, and it’s up to the player to avoid getting hit while firing back at the enemies. But I found it hard to concentrate on any in-game task — whether it’s shooting, dodging, or planning an escape — with so much visual chaos on the screen. I also hadn’t played very many bullet-hell games; watching others play was enough of a stressor to turn me off the genre.

And then Atomicrops happened, and I now have a ton more games I need to add to my backlog. I enjoy the hell out of bullet-hell, it turns out; I just hadn’t found the right entry point.

Atomicrops, by developer Bird Bath Games, originally appealed to me because of the farming. A large part of the game is spent growing and harvesting a mass of gnarly, disfigured plants.

Green slime balls with faces attacking Image: Bird Bath Games/Raw Fury

You see, Atomicrops farmland isn’t just any farmland — it’s a farm in a post-apocalyptic wasteland infested with mutated slugs and rabbits, among other nasty things. They’ll try to eat your crops, but they’re also trying to kill and eat you.

This is no Stardew Valley, but it certainly has some of that quirk and charm, mixed with the action and chaos of bullet-hell rogue-lites. That’s a lot of jargon and a large assumption that you’ve played Stardew Valley, but here’s what that means in practical terms: You farm and get married, but also shoot and dodge an onslaught of incoming bullets with some regularity. Imagine a version of, say, Animal Crossing that breaks out into a technical fighting game every few minutes and you get the idea. This is a strange mish-mash of ideas and genres, but it all works together much better than it should.

The gameplay works in cycles: action-packed farm runs (three per season, four seasons in a year) where you balance farming, exploring, fighting, and time. You’ll explore the world to find new crops to plant and upgrades — like animals that boost productivity or tools to improve your fighting abilities — and tend to your crops during the day.

You’ll have to fight off the mutant inhabitants of the land as you go about your business, but they’ll only start attacking your crops directly at night. And defending them is important. You can sell your crops for cashews, which are one of the game’s currencies. Cashews are what you use to upgrade your weapons in town. Roses, another currency that you must grow yourself, help in that regard too, but are a little more special: With them, you can earn new stuff by flirting with strangers. You can even get married to one of them eventually, and they’ll come back to your farm to help out once you’ve been hitched.

Image: Bird Bath Games/Raw Fury

You’ll be transported back to the town to chat with the locals and upgrade your weapons between each of these day and night cycles. How successful you are there depends on how many cashews your crops have earned you. No cashews, no upgrades.

The upgrades aren’t super important in the early hours of the game; Atomicrops does a good job easing players into the loop. But the difficulty ramps up quickly, and you’ll need new tools to survive longer. Otherwise, you’ll die, and have to start over from the beginning. You only get the one life.

Starting over is less devastating than I initially imagined. After all, that’s kind of the point of the game. Nothing feels repetitive; scenarios play out differently during each run. To survive longer, you’ve just got to make it past the waves of mutated rabbits, slugs, and other creatures firing relentlessly in an effort to eat you. You can take some hits — sometimes sacrificing health in the most dire situations — as long as it isn’t draining your last heart. If that’s gone, then the game ends. And so, that means constantly moving, either tending to your crops and shooting, too.

The short bursts of intensity in each round gave me the space to feel comfortable investing in experimentation, balancing the needs of my crops with the dangerous exploration. There’s a lot of satisfaction in figuring out that I can, if things go as planned, clear an entire area before I need to head back to tend my plants — a far cry from what I was able to do when I started playing the game. And doing so means I can become more powerful, and do a better job of defending my crops at night.

It’s the loop of farming, upgrading, fighting, and ultimately dying that’s the secret. Learning to play Atomicrops felt natural; every run gave me a little more information. I gained understanding of what power-ups benefit my playstyle in waves as I tested out upgrades and weapons in all sorts of goofy combinations.

Vegetables getting watered Image: Bird Bath Games/Raw Fury

And now I understand why people like these sorts of games. Atomicrops looks hard, but it doesn’t feel punishing as you’re playing it. It’s hard in a way that’s approachable, and I’ve come to understand each repetition — dying and starting over — is a part of the process. I could hardly think about what I was doing during my earliest runs, I was so overwhelmed. I just shot at things and ran around. But now, I can approach Atomicrops with a plan, knowing just how long I need to clear an area and when to rush back to protect my plants. I’ve learned how to dodge and shoot and water my plants by doing it all at the same time, over and over.

Heck, I like the chaos of bullet-hell games now. Or at least the ones where you can make it back to town with a good harvest, and flirt with some strangers before going into battle.

Atomicrops was released May 28 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Impressions were based on final “retail” Switch download code provided by Take-Two Interactive. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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